Philip Patrick, in the London Spectator, marvels at just how differently the Japanese finds ways of doing things.
The late A.A. Gill, in his notorious ‘Mad in Japan’ essay, concluded that the only way you could make sense of Tokyo was to think of it as a vast open-air lunatic asylum, with inmates instead of residents. Gill would have loved Arisa.
I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anything more stereotypically Japanese than Arisa. She’s a multilingual robot concierge at Nishi-Shinjuku station in central Tokyo, one of the thousands of new automatons installed in the city ahead of the Olympics next month. She has a rather creepy Doctor Who look to her — she could be Davros’s girlfriend — and she’s there to assist tourists. I considered testing Arisa by asking how to get to the famous Budokan concert hall, in the hope that she’d answer ‘Practise!’; but I’m not sure she’s programmed for humour.
The eccentricity of Japan is all-enveloping and inescapable: the frighteningly shrill screamed chorus of ‘Welcome’ whenever you enter a shop; the bizarre Japanese–English on packaging and billboards, hastily ‘translated’, presumably by non-native speakers, and apparently never checked. (‘The Day Nice Hotel’ and ‘Soup for Sluts’ are my personal favourites.) Then there are the council rose-bush pruners who wear crash helmets to do their work; the incomprehensible address system that makes a new location impossible to find (even with a robot assistant); the dangerous food, the highly prized but poisonous fugu pufferfish which kills a handful of people each year but is still sold as a delicacy. I could go on.
But Gill’s problem may have been that he didn’t stick around long enough (he hated the food). …
As Dikko Henderson, James Bond’s man in Japan, says as he fixes 007 a drink:‘I’ve been in Tokyo 20 years and I’m only beginning to find my way around.’ I imagine he wasn’t merely referring to directions.
So eventually you come to understand that the crash helmets of the rose pruners are not for safety, but part of a formal uniform. And you realise that Japanese-English is decorative and designed to get your attention, rather than be meaningful (you’ll never forget ‘Soup for Sluts’). And you suspect that addresses may be purposefully confusing to deter casual visitors and reward the truly committed with a sense of accomplishment. And you sense that perhaps the irritatingly inflexible and time-consuming etiquette and the vagueness of so much written information keeps us on permanent edge, always slightly anxious and uncertain, thus warding off complacency, laziness, decadence. And eating the pufferfish adds a certain Russian roulette excitement to a meal.
But it’s another mistake to imagine that the locals understand their own peculiarities or have consciously engineered them. The Japanese are self-absorbed but not necessarily fully self-aware. Nihonjinron — the study of Japanese things by the Japanese — is a life’s work and an end in itself, undertaken by the majority in some form or another but never truly completed.
‘You are an eternal student. You never master anything — you just become progressively less bad,’ said an acquaintance about her 30-year flower-arranging career. Process is more important than product.
As Donald Richie, the great writer on Japanese aesthetics, said: ‘A Japanese person understands Japaneseness in the same way a fish understands water. They are surrounded by it, but have no idea what it is.’ Strange customs evolve over long stretches of time and survive because they serve some often obscure purpose and contribute in a small way to the greater good. There’s method in the quirkiness.
Ross Clark notes that an explanation, other than politics, is required to account for the difference in the impact of the COVID-19 virus in Asia from the toll it’s taken in Europe and the United States.
Japan… has not used any of the standard measures for tackling Covid-19 â€“ lockdown, test, track and trace â€“ with any great vigour. Neither has it succeeded in snuffing out the virus by any other means. If you think Boris Johnson or Donald Trump have been reckless in some way, you ought to be berating the Japanese government far more. But you wonâ€™t because Japan, in spite of its laissez-faire attitude, has had remarkably few deaths: seven for every million citizens, compared with 567 in the UK. Even Europeâ€™s Covid pin-up â€“ Germany â€“ has suffered a death rate that is multiples that of Japan: 103 per million.
But then again, if you compared Japan with its Far Eastern neighbours, you could establish a case that Japan has been reckless: South Korea and Taiwan have even lower death rates at 5 per million and 0.3 per million respectively.
This brings one to an inescapable conclusion that has been obvious since mid-March, at least to anyone who has been prepared to see it: that there is a fundamental difference in the way that this virus has behaved in the Far East compared with Europe and America. It has been far, far deadlier in the latter two, and in a way which cannot even nearly be explained by the way different governments have handled the epidemic. This raises two possibilities: either there is a difference in the virus that has been attacking Western countries or there is a difference in the human populations.
In Japan, shinkiro (mirage) was attributed to the breath of giant sea molluscs. When this purple mist bubbled up from the deep, it hung above the water in the form of a spectral island called Horai, complete with palaces and temples. In China, the island was known as Penglai, and 8th-century poet Châ€™ien Châ€™i declared that any dignitary making the crossing to Japan would spot â€œthe high houses of the clam-monsters bannered with rainbowsâ€.
Every retail store in Japan, from supermarkets and electronics stores to 100yen shops and secondhand thriftstores, have their own theme song and jingle which they play on repeat in their stores, and sometimes supermarkets have jingles for specific seasonal dinner plates in attempt to brainwash customers.
There is also a truck which circles through Shibuya and nearby areas blasting an annoying recording of women singing high pitched and off-key, advertising a website for female sex industry jobs, and they are unfortunately very effective in catching attention and memory.
The other day while the train was stopped I heard crows cawing nearby. It startled me because they sounded like tortured young Japanese men screaming in intense agony or pleasure.
Japanese Twitter user @thumb_tani (aka Tanu) has mastered the art of balance. He uses his keen sense of equilibrium to create small, fascinating sculptures from carefully-positioned coins. Although many of us have probably attempted this same sort of coin stacking, Tanu takes these arrangements to a whole newâ€”and totally epicâ€”level.
Using a variety of denominations, Tanu creates intricate structures that range in shape and size. Often, heâ€™ll first build a strong base using staggered coins. Then, he does the seemingly impossible. Tanu stands the coins upright and places them edge-to-edge without the discs falling or even wobbling. From there, heâ€™ll sometimes stack even more coins (or other objects) on top. Itâ€™s a mesmerizing sight, but also one that youâ€™ll want to hold your breath for. The precarious sculptures look as though they could tumble at any moment.
In preparation for the 2020 Olympics, Japanese anime artists are busily competing to provide each country with its own representative anime warrior. So far, the Philippines have gotten the character voted the best.
Writing about the food of Japanese monks and nuns for a magazine like this one presented a conceptual difficulty. From the Buddhist perspective, cooking is a form of spiritual practice that produces nourishment to prepare the body for hard work and meditation. Unlike, say, Memphis barbecue or the cuisine of Lyonnaise bouchons, shojin doesnâ€™t have a whole lot to say on the subject of pleasure. Shojin has bigger fish to fry. Its goals are nothing less than permanent enlightenment, nirvana, the fundamental transformation of the human mind and society. It does not fit easily into the hedonistic, novelty-addled world of food journalism.
Before every other restaurant extolled the virtues of seasonal produce, there was shojin ryori, a Buddhist cuisine reimagined by monk chef Toshio Tanahashi.
I chanced upon my salvation, journalistically speaking, in the person of Toshio Tanahashi. Heâ€™d practiced the art of shojin as a Zen monk in a rural temple near Kyoto and then did something unprecedentedâ€”he opened a restaurant in Tokyoâ€™s chic Omotesando neighborhood that presented vegan monastic cuisine in a fine-dining context. The restaurant, Gesshin Kyo, became both successful and influential. Reviewing it for the New York Times, author and culinary authority Elizabeth Andoh described it as a â€œsecular space imbued with a spiritual respect for food.â€ It was a spiritual respect that nonetheless made room for distinctly un-Japanese elements like tomatoes, mangoes, and white bordeaux. Freed from temple kitchens and its role as nourishment, shojin dazzled Tanahashiâ€™s diners with its unfamiliar and subtle beauty. The Zen monk had become a famous chef by reimagining monk food.
Tanahashi closed Gesshin Kyo after 15 years, in 2006. Along the way he wrote two books about shojin ryori and came to see it as a corrective to the worldâ€™s restaurant culture, which he believes to be addled with costly, scarce, and unhealthy ingredients. …
[S]hojin [is] world poised between the rigorous simplicity of spiritual practice and its often exquisite trappings. Consider the tools found in a shojin kitchen. On the day we met, Tanahashi brought me to Aritsugu, renowned as a shrine among the international brotherhood of knife fetishists. The family-owned shop has been in continuous operation since 1560 and once supplied swords to the Imperial House of Japan.
At the modern-day shop in Kyotoâ€™s enclosed Nishiki Market, we shimmied past vitrines of eye-wateringly expensive sashimi blades to a back room, where a soft-spoken manager showed us the principal tools of the shojin chef. There was an adorably petite vegetable cleaver called a nakiri-bocho; a one-sided grater of tinned copper trimmed in magnolia wood and deer antler used for working with lotus root and wasabi; and a strainer-ricer made of the braided hairs of a horseâ€™s tail bound with a band of cherry bark. These utensils, made by hand, were remarkably beautiful.
â€œThings that are made by humans for humans are good for the spirit,â€ Tanahashi declared. He explained that shojin kitchens forbid plastic and machinery. Taking care of oneâ€™s tools, he added, turning the cleaver in his hand, was in itself a form of Buddhist meditation.
Over the next several days, Tanahashi led me on a breakneck tour of shojinâ€”not the grand theory behind it, but the myriad building blocks. He referred to it as my â€œeducation.â€ At an antique lacquerware shop called Uruwashiya, behind one of those dimly lit Kyoto storefronts that always look closed, Akemi Horiuchi, the elegant proprietor, showed us the most important dishes used in serving shojinâ€”several attractively worn red bowls and a matching tray. Red is the auspicious color of the temples, she explained, and the trayâ€™s raised edge indicates that it encloses a sacred space. Shojin must be served in handmade vessels, and few are as painstakingly handmade as theseâ€”delicately carved wood covered with layer upon layer of urushi lacquer, making the dishes supple, lightweight, and resilient. The lacquer on the bowls Horiuchi showed us had faded in placesâ€”a prized quality, she saidâ€”because they were made nearly 500 years ago, in Sen no Rikyuâ€™s lifetime.